Thursday, July 12, 2007

"The Misue of Science" and Holsinger's Weak Defense

Most of us would probably associate the phrase "faith-based medicine" with Christian Science and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy. It is thus interesting to see the extent to which the White House has changed the connotation of this phrase through its handling of the management of the Office of the Surgeon General. Will Dunham has been covering the Senate confirmations hearings for Dr. James Holsinger, Bush's nominee to succeed Dr. Richard Carmona. Dunham felt that it was important to include, as context for his latest report for Reuters, the fact that "Carmona has accused the Bush administration of preventing him from speaking out on stem cell research and other controversial issues." Carmona felt that the authority of his own professional experience should not be subjugated to the authority of anyone who lacked comparable experience, even his boss. This strength of professional conviction above political expediency casts an interesting light on the current examination of Dr. Holsinger.

The issue at stake was described by Dunham as follows:

Gay rights groups also have opposed Holsinger's nomination to be the nation's top doctor, faulting a document he wrote in 1991 titled "Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality."

Written to a United Methodist Church panel studying homosexuality, Holsinger offered exhaustive anatomical details to describe anal sex as unnatural.

Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the committee's chairman, said Holsinger's paper was "ideological and decidedly not an accurate analysis of the science then available on homosexuality."

"The misuse of science gravely concerns me," Kennedy said.

"I did not attempt to write a definitive scientific paper," Holsinger responded, admitting the paper is now outdated.

One does not have to be a seasoned expert in rhetoric to see how Dr. Holsinger evaded Senator Kennedy's concerns about the "misuse of science." Whatever his intent may have been, Dr. Holsinger wrote this 1991 document in the voice of the authority of his profession. One has to assume that the United Methodist Church invited him to write the document specifically for that voice of authority. If that voice was used to "utter" ideology and inaccuracy, then my own opinion is that Dr. Holsinger has committed an act of the "misuse of science." He might offer, as a defense, that, because the paper had not been reviewed by his medical peers, it should not be taken as a scientific document; but I see this as a deliberate attempt to confound the distinction of the role of the writer with the role of the reader. If the United Methodist Church presented Dr. Holsinger as an authority to its community, then that community will not care very much whether or not what Dr. Holsinger wrote had been properly vetted by peer review. If it is good enough for those representatives of the Church that invited Dr. Holsinger to write the paper, then it should be good enough for the entire Methodist Community.

This is perhaps an overly extended way to saying that Senator Kennedy should be concerned about the "misuse of science" and that Dr. Holsinger did not say anything to allay those concerns. It is not an attempt to argue that "scientific truth" should always trump "faith-based truth," however. Rather, it is a conviction that the highest government official responsible for the oversight of medical practice in this country should have sufficient respect for that "scientific truth" that we, as citizens, can view him as an "honest broker" in the decisions he makes and his capacity for oversight.

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